For the third year in a row, businesses that cater to visitors along the South Carolina coast are working to salvage the early fall tourist season after a major storm.
Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head and other coastal cities lost $29 million in visitor spending the week before Irma flooded the coast on Sept. 11, said Duane Parrish, director of the state's Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
"It would have been worse if we had not had some evacuees (from Florida and Georgia) coming to South Carolina," he said.
The state lost even more revenue the week after the storm, even though many businesses were open again the next day and reported minimal damage and state and local tourism officials rolled out their "coast is clear" publicity campaign.
For the week of Sept. 9-16, the tourism department estimated lost visitor spending along the coast at $95 million. The estimate comes from comparing occupancy with the same week a year earlier and calculating what those lost visitors would have spent in addition to hotel rooms.
"That’s actually larger than the $74 million loss from Hurricane Matthew, even though Matthew did more damage," Parrish said.
Matthew hit the coast last October, a year after historic flooding in October 2015.
But Irma came on the heels of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, which had a lot of people on heightened storm alert, and Irma's projected path pointed straight toward South Carolina for several days before it veered to the west.
"Even though there never was an evacuation, people saw that cone," Parrish said. "When you hear the words South Carolina, hurricane and coast on a newscast, if you have any reservations the next 90 days, you cancel it. That’s what happens."
Hotels in Charleston County are usually 74.2 percent full the first week of September, according to the College of Charleston's Office of Tourism Analysis. This year, for the week of Sept. 3-9, occupancy was 62.4 percent.
"We were surprised that it wasn’t worse than it was," said Helen Hill, executive director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Once the governor made the decision not to evacuate, we were able to help a lot of people coming from Florida."
For example, the Holiday Inn Express on Spring Street by the Ashley River in Charleston was completely full during the storm, mainly with travelers from Florida, according to sales manager Rosey Atkinson.
She rode out the storm with about 400 guests and 150 dogs and cats as the hotel was completely surrounded by water and the electricity and then their backup generator went out. They called the managers of the nearby WestEdge construction site and waded through waist-deep water to break through a fence and drag back several generators that look like tall light poles to serve meals and recharge cell phones.
A week after the storm, with everything dry and the sun shining but the refugees gone, occupancy was about 30 percent.
"It's just a matter of getting the word out," Atkinson said.
Many businesses were open the day after the storm, although it took a couple of days for some of the plantations and tourist attractions to clean up and reopen, and the popular Fort Sumter National Monument remained closed until Sept. 22.
Hotels took a bigger hit the week after the storm as the refugees left. For the week of Sept. 10-16, occupancy for Charleston County was about 51 percent, compared to 79 percent last year.
"This is about a 35 percent decrease, or comparable to the drop we saw last year the week after Hurricane Matthew," said Perrin Lawson, the visitors bureau's deputy director.
After the Irma scare, South Carolina tourism was hampered by yet more uncertainty over Maria and Jose, two more storms swirling around in the Atlantic.
"I think people (were) ... watching those storms and just holding back a little on whether to come to Charleston," said Pietro Giardini, general manager of The Vendue near Waterfront Park. "Overall, we feel like Vendue is very close to back to normal, barring any more weather events coming our way."
Several downtown hotel managers said business had improved but wasn't back to normal, although they couldn't be specific because of corporate policy.
Recent occupancy at Charming Inns — which includes the John Rutledge House, Wentworth Mansion, Kings Courtyard Inn and Fulton Lane Inn — was down about 35 percent from the same time last year, according to Linn Lesesne, vice president of sales and public relations.
"Unfortunately we do not foresee the rest of this month going back to what we would consider 'normal' occupancy for September," she said.
Business was almost back to normal at the Francis Marion Hotel, which has been at King and Calhoun since 1924 and weathered several hurricanes.
Occupancy at the 230-room Francis Marion on a weekend this time of year is typically 95 percent to 100 percent. On a recent weekend in September, it was about 85 percent, according to Gayle Karolczyk, executive general manager. That’s because most of the reservations were made quite a while ago. Two groups that canceled during the storm rescheduled for December and January.
"Obviously we lost a lot of revenue (around the time of the storm)," she said. “We lost a couple groups. We haven’t completely done the numbers yet, but I would say it’s about $400,000."
The Francis Marion stayed open during Irma and served guests at the Swamp Fox restaurant. Refugees from the barrier islands and Savannah filled about 50 or 60 rooms during the storm.
Hank Holliday, owner of the Planters Inn and Peninsula Grill, wasn't pleased by the disruption from all the dire warnings before the storm.
"There was a dramatic loss in revenue as a result of dramatic sensationalizing," he said. "I certainly didn’t expect a flood that was essentially gone within 24 hours and a 40 mph wind to cause a three-week decline in business, but that’s exactly what happened."
The hotel stayed open during the storm, about half full, including many people who came up from Florida.
"We had no damage, no water," he said. "We never closed."
Charming Inns also includes Circa 1886 and Kitchen 208 restaurants, which also took a hit from the storm just as Restaurant Week was starting, Lesesne said. The restaurants closed only the day of the storm but had numerous cancellations for the rest of the week, especially for Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
"The other nights have been busy but not as busy as previous restaurant weeks, which we feel sure is a direct result in generally lower occupancies all over town," she said.
Many downtown Charleston restaurants continued to serve until the day of the storm and were open again the day after. Charleston Restaurant Week kicked off Sept. 6, the Wednesday before the storm, and lost only one full day.
"My wife and I dined out every day but Monday," said Randall Goldman, chairman of the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association.
He said Le Farfalle's dining room was packed the night before the storm, mainly with hotel guests who had come from Florida. Staff went out of their way to welcome them and make them want to come back.
"A lot of people came into Charleston who had never been here before," Goldman said. "It gave us as a community a chance to highlight our hospitality."
The Florida effect
South Carolina will continue to be impacted by the damage in Florida.
Many of the seniors who typically travel to that state in the fall are expected to cancel their trips. Some of them will come to South Carolina instead, according to Parrish.
But some of them will not travel at all, and South Carolina will lose the visitors who ordinarily stop here on their way to the Sunshine State, according to Drew Yochum, vice president of marketing and sales for Charleston Harbor Tours, which typically sees many of the older visitors in the fall.
"I’m sure we will be impacted this year by what happened in Florida," he said.
The storm didn't cost the Charleston area any big conventions or major shows, according to Frank Lapsley, general manager of the North Charleston Coliseum. A few locally organized events were canceled but rescheduled.
Myrtle Beach didn't sustain any significant damage, other than some lost siding at a few oceanfront properties, according to Parrish. Like Charleston, the biggest loss was from people canceling as the storm approached.
Coastal Carolina University’s Brittain Center for Resort Tourism uses a weekly occupancy sample to give a snapshot of tourism health. For the Friday and Saturday nights of Sept. 8-9, occupancy for the 23 properties in the sample was down 37.9 percent compared to the same weekend a year earlier.
The situation had improved some a week later, with occupancy down 23.5 percent from the same period a year ago.
"Our booking pace continues to lag behind, though we have seen a modest rebound after Irma," said Brad Dean, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. "The Myrtle Beach area enjoys a lot of group business in the fall season and, unfortunately, some groups had to cancel due to the threat of the storm and could not reschedule."
Tourism officials stepped up regional advertising and publicity efforts to get out the message that the Grand Strand was open for business and they are optimistic that will pay off by October.
"However, we recognize that after three straight years of storms in the fall and another major storm churning in the Atlantic, some travelers may be a little jittery about a trip to the coast," Dean said.
Hilton Head reported minimal damage.
"There were definitely cancellations, but the bounce back has been very positive," said Charlie Clark, spokeswoman for the Hilton Head Island Visitor and Convention Bureau.
She didn’t have numbers comparing occupancy from a year ago but projected they would be about the same.
The bureau rolled out a "Love the Lowcountry" campaign a few days after the storm to get out the message that the island was back to normal.
"What we think is so effective are those real-time photos showing what’s happening right now and right after the storm with sunny skies and great beaches," she said.
Reach Dave Munday at 843-937-5553.